The next stage to projecting who could go in the opening round of the 2013 NHL Draft was revealed Tuesday when NHL Central Scouting released its preliminary rankings for the top levels of North American junior hockey and Europe.
While the lists certainly offer a good look into which players could be chosen in the early rounds, NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr is quick to note that the rankings are subject to refinement by the time the mid-term report is released in January.
For the preliminary rankings, Marr and his staff ranked the top 25 skaters and top goaltenders in the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Western Hockey League and United States Hockey League, which has included the U.S. Under-18 National Team Developmental Program the past four seasons. The international rankings for eight countries also were released, as was a revised watch list for prospects starring in high school, college and Canadian provincial leagues.
The top storyline heading into the 2013 Draft, to be held June 28 at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., is the incredible depth across the board. The race for No. 1 likely will be between a pair of North American players -- forward Nathan MacKinnon of the Halifax Mooseheads in the QMJHL and defenseman Seth Jones of the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL.
Not since 2005, when Sidney Crosby of the Rimouski Oceanic was taken No. 1 by the Pittsburgh Penguins, has a player from the QMJHL gone first at the draft. Some believe that will change this year with the emergence of MacKinnon, who leads Halifax with 19 goals and 37 points in 22 games. He'll look to become the fifth player in history to go first in the QMJHL entry draft (in 2011 by Baie-Comeau Drakkar) before being selected No. 1 in the NHL Draft (Mario Lemieux, Pierre Turgeon, Alexandre Daigle, Crosby).
MacKinnon (6-foot, 182 pounds), who has 12 multipoint games, heads an impressive list of prospects from the QMJHL this season.
"There are top-end prospects and a lot more high-end players from the QMJHL in the top 100 this year … more so than there have been in the past few years for sure," Marr told NHL.com. "This is a very strong year in the Q."
MacKinnon, who has won 53 percent of his 516 faceoffs this season, is followed on the QMJHL list by teammate Jonathan Drouin of Halifax. The 5-10.75, 185-pound forward is second on the team behind MacKinnon with 35 points, including 16 goals, despite playing six fewer games. Drouin has 10 goals and 20 points in nine games since his return from a foot injury Oct. 24.
The top-ranked player in the WHL is Jones, a 6-foot-3.5, 208-pound defenseman, who hasn't missed a beat in his first season with the Winterhawks following an impressive campaign with the USNTDP U-18 last season. Make no mistake, MacKinnon and Jones are the frontrunners of this draft, and it wouldn't be too far-fetched to hear that the team owning the first pick decided to flip a coin rather than make the excruciating decision of choosing one over the other.
The Texas-born Jones, son of former NBA forward Popeye Jones, opted for Portland instead of the University of North Dakota this season. A sure-fire starter along the blue line for the U.S. National Junior Team at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship next month, Jones has six goals, 14 points and a plus-14 rating in 21 games for the Winterhawks. He had eight goals and 31 points in 52 games with the USNTDP U-18 team last season.
"Seth is a big, rangy defenseman who has a nice command of his shifts," NHL Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald told NHL.com. "He has the ability to be a game changer because he has good instincts and awareness. He's an underrated passer, possesses solid one-on-one play and can skate the puck out of danger at any time. He's already the complete package, but I get the feeling he still has another gear to go to."
There has and will be plenty of healthy debate leading up to the draft on who might be considered the top forward from the WHL with No. 2-ranked Hunter Shinkaruk of the Medicine Hat Tigers, No. 5 Morgan Klimchuk of the Regina Pats and No. 8 Curtis Lazar of the Edmonton Oil Kings in the mix.
Shinkaruk, who may miss time due to an undisclosed injury suffered Saturday, is sixth in the league with 35 points, including 17 goals, in 24 games.
"He's a shifty, clever forward," MacDonald said of Shinkaruk. "He has the ability to switch to another gear when driving to the net and the puck does not slow him down. He's one of the best playmakers in the [WHL]; very good puck sense and velvet hands. He has a great overall understanding of the game."
Klimchuk has 13 goals and 25 points in 24 games after totaling 18 goals and 36 points in 67 games last season. Lazar, who racked up 31 points in 63 games in 2011-12, has eight goals and 14 points in 22 games for the Oil Kings in 2012-13.
"Right now, Shinkaruk would have the edge on being the No. 1 forward," MacDonald said. "He has proven he can be a reliable scorer. He's very smart and is showing this year he can find other ways to contribute.
"Lazar is on a much better team and the points aren't coming as everyone might have thought because maybe expectations were a little high for him because of his strong finish last year, but what he has improved on this year is his overall play. He pays attention to detail at both ends of the rink and is developing into a solid two-way player."
MacDonald was quick to point out that Klimchuk and No. 11 Oliver Bjorkstrand of the Winterhawks also should be high on everyone's draft list. Bjorkstrand leads all first-year WHL players with 11 goals and 21 points in 22 games. Coming in at No. 3 on the WHL list after Jones and Shinkaruk is defenseman Ryan Pulock of the Brandon Wheat Kings.
"He's positionally sound and a good puck-mover," MacDonald said of Pulock. "He has a very good awareness and an ability to run a power play because he has a big shot and gets the puck through."
The No. 1 player from the OHL is two-way center Sean Monahan of the Ottawa 67's. Monahan (6-2, 186) had 33 goals and 78 points for Ottawa last season, and already has 11 goals and 33 points in 23 games in 2012-13.
"His production probably would be quite a bit more if he had somebody who could finish for him," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "He gets pucks through traffic, has real good hands, real good play-making ability. He's got an excellent shot, gets it off real quick and gets himself involved in battles for pucks. He's used in every situation, double- and triple-shifted at times."
Darnell Nurse of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds is No. 2 on the OHL list. The 6-3.5, 189-pound defenseman has four goals, 17 points and a plus-6 rating in 23 games in his second season for the Greyhounds. Nurse had one goal and 10 points as a rookie in 2011-12.
"He's just a big, steady guy that doesn't make a lot of mistakes," Edwards said. "He gets the puck and he generally makes a good pass with it. He's a real smart guy, uses his size well, [is] physical and plays with an edge and toughness. He's a good all-round guy."
J.T. Compher, who stars for the USNTDP U-18 team, is the top-rated skater in the USHL. The 5-10.5, 184-pound left wing, who will attend the University of Michigan next fall, has two goals and three points in six games this season, but has been sidelined the past 15 games with an undisclosed injury.
Players from the USNTDP U-18 team account for half the USHL top 10. In addition to Compher, is No. 3 Hudson Fasching (committed to the University of Minnesota), No. 4 Steven Santini (Boston College), No. 5 Keaton Thompson (North Dakota) and No. 7 Michael McCarron (Western Michigan).
The top-rated non-USNTDP skater on the USHL list is Waterloo Black Hawks defenseman and No. 2-rated Ian McCoshen, who recently committed to Boston College for next fall.
McCoshen had eight goals, 20 points, 43 penalty minutes and a plus-4 rating in 55 games last season with Waterloo. He has one goal, four points and a plus-13 rating in eight games this season for the Black Hawks. He's currently sidelined due to an illness.
"He's definitely an attractive pro prospect, and you can see his game will translate well to being a pro … he has ice in his veins," NHL Central Scouting's David Gregory told NHL.com. "He handles all situations well and uses his strength. Once he starts to understand how much more he can dominate with his size (6-2.5, 207) and strength, he'll improve even more."
Among the goalies, Zachary Fucale of Halifax not only is the frontrunner in the QMJHL, but may also hold a slight edge among all other draft-eligible players at his position. The 6-1.25, 181-pound netminder is 15-2-1 in 18 games this season, with a 2.65 goals-against average and .883 save percentage. Central Scouting's Al Jensen said Fucale is fundamentally and technically sound and offers excellent net coverage. With good patience and poise, the native of Rosemere, Quebec, is no doubt an excellent prospect.
"He presents himself big in the net and spreads out very well," Jensen told NHL.com. "He hardly leaves any holes for shooters, and even looks and plays big even when in the butterfly. He keeps his body upright, protecting the upper corners, and makes saves look easy."
As a QMJHL rookie last season, Fucale went 32-18-6 with a 3.16 GAA and .892 save percentage.
The top two European prospects on the board are Barkov of Finland and Lindholm of Sweden.
Barkov, the son of long-time European pro Russian-born Aleksander Barkov, was born and raised in Finland. The 17-year-old center (6-2, 205), who grew up a big admirer of Eric Lindros, is lighting it up in for Tappara in SM-liiga with 12 goals and 24 points in 23 games.
"He's smart, cool, effective and creative," Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "He's a two-way strength, who sees the ice very well. His father was a great player who played in Russia and then spent 10 years with Tappara. Alexander Jr. plays the same style as his dad did."
Lindholm, who has five goals and 14 points in 22 games with Brynas in Sweden's top league, projects to be a future top-six forward with star potential. Stubb feels the versatile 6-foot, 191-pound forward "has a good chance to be a top-five pick."
"He's a complete package," Stubb said. "He could very well be the next Peter Forsberg. He's an excellent skater and great competitor who gives it 110 percent on every shift. He can skate, score and pass, and is physically strong even though he is a finesse-type of player."
The top Russian player is 6-4, 196-pound right wing Valeri Nichushkin. Some claim Nichushkin is the next Evgeni Malkin, and considering his blend of size, mobility and offensive skill, it's no wonder he'll command plenty of attention at the draft. At present, Nichushkin is playing for both the Chelyabinsk junior team and its senior second team. He's expected to stick with Chelyabinsk in the KHL.
"He's your classic Russian forward with speed, talent and skills," Stubb said. "He's very good with the puck and is very fast. He creates a lot of scoring chances with quick, surprising moves around the net."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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